For a good part of the twentieth century, Harlem’s Apollo Theater was one of the most prestigious, important, and well-known venues for black entertainers. For anyone seeking to research how the Apollo Theater worked, the economics of the black entertainment industry, and the ups and downs of stars’ drawing power, there is only one place to go: the Archives Center of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. That’s where the Frank Schiffman Apollo Theatre Collection trove of sixteen boxes of rare and fascinating material—is preserved.
The Schiffman family ran the Apollo from 1934 to 1976. In 1946, Frank Schiffman began keeping a 5”x8” card on each and every act he hired—from singers such as Ella Fitzgerald and Chuck Berry to dancers such as Honi Coles, and comedians like Redd Foxx. There are over twelve hundred such cards.
Each card listed the opening night of the booking (most bookings were for one week), the amount each was paid, and—most interesting of all—Schiffman’s pithy comments on the act’s drawing power, polish, affordability, freshness or staleness, reception, attitude, and cooperativeness with management. All the comments were typewritten, making the cards completely legible and easy to read.
Of Ella Fitzgerald’s November 25, 1953, appearance, Schiffman wrote: “$2,500. Excellent performance. Very disappointing business—actually a substantial loss.” Commenting on Pearl Bailey ’s October 1965 show, Schiffman wrote: “The absolute mistress of comedy – song. Has audience in her hands from start to finish. Excellent!!!”
Many acts had a varied history at the theater, sometimes drawing well and sometimes doing poorly. Of singer-guitarist Chuck Berry’s March 13, 1958, appearance, he wrote: “Very bad experience. No drawing power at all.” The elder Schiffman also had little tolerance for the raw sensuality of contemporary rock. Of singer-guitarist Bo Diddley’s December 31, 1965, appearance, he noted: “Drums, guitar, 3 girls—doesn’t really fit this show but after taking out filth–closed very well.” And of rock singer Buddy Holly’s famous August 16, 1957, appearance—where the audience was shocked to discover that the Crickets were white, but nonetheless gave them a warm welcome—Schiffman simply wrote: “Four White boys. Very bad.”
John Edward Hasse is a curator in the Division of Culture and the Arts at the National Museum of American History.
Editor’s note: Be sure to check out the exhibition, “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing: How the Apollo Theater Shaped American Entertainment,” at the National Museum of American History before it closes on August 29. This exhibition, organized by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, will travel to Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History (Oct. 1 – Jan. 2, 2011) and the Museum of the City of New York (Jan. 20, 2011 – May 1, 2011).